When we learned of the U.S. release of Richard Cook's Blue Note Records: the Biography , and decided to do the book review and to interview Mr. Cook, we thought it would also be timely and interesting to get the perspective of the current CEO of the label, Bruce Lundvall. Bruce was a fledgling jazz fan when Blue Note came on the scene, loved Blue Note from the beginning, and even spoke to Alfred Lion about a job, but none was available at the time. Twenty plus years later, he took over Blue Note, and under his helm, it has earned a well deserved reputation as a recording company that retains its integrity and dedication to jazz at the same time that it turns a profit. Bruce comes across in the following interview as an astute business person, who thoroughly loves jazz and supports the musicians, and genuinely enjoys the mix of business, music, and friendships that his job has given him.
All About Jazz: Mr. Lundvall, I'm excited to do this interview with you, and I feel honored. I'm reviewing Richard Cook's new book Blue Note Records: The Biography, and I thought that I would interview you as the CEO of Blue Note to get your perspective on the record company and its history, as well as the book. My first question is the inevitable, 'What are your all-time favorite Blue Note recordings?'
Bruce Lundvall: I knew you'd ask that! One Night with Blue Note with Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, and Curly Russell. Dexter Gordon: Go!. Obviously, Blue Trane. Bud Powell: The Genius of Bud Powell. And of course, the early Monk on Blue Note. And the Herbie Nichols recordings. He's fabulous, a real underrated artist, very original. Those are some of my real favorites.
AAJ: Have you read Cook's new 'biography' of Blue Note Records?
BL: Of course.
AAJ: What are some of your thoughts about the book?
BL: I think it's a very accurate chronological description of what went on all those years. It could've used some more anecdotes, and some day we'll have them. I think Richard did a great job. The only problem I had was when he described me as being 'portly.' (Laughter)
AAJ: That's a very important historical fact. (Laughter.)
BL: Very much so.
AAJ: Were there particular parts of the book that leaped out at you or brought back strong memories?
BL: Essentially, I thought he chronicled the Alfred Lion period very well. I knew Alfred for the last two years before he passed away, and he gave me much insight about how the company operated, and how hard it was. You know, they were always a couple of steps ahead of the creditors. Some of the stories, such as how they picked up John Coltrane at a drug store and brought him on the session with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley, and so on- those things are all true. But there's a bigger story to be told, I think, and I'm hopeful that at some point, it becomes an inclusive story, hopefully for our seventieth anniversary, which ain't too far away. That will bring the history of the label completely up to date.
AAJ: So there's a lot missing in the book?
BL: Oh, but that's OK! Cook basically chronicled the whole Lion-Wolff period, which is what needed to be done. But I would like to see at some point that the history is updated, because it has been a continuum. Yet Alfred is still our inspiration, obviously.
AAJ: What do you recall about the time in 1960 when you went to see Lion about a job with Blue Note, but nothing materialized for twenty-something years!
BL: What happened was that I was at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and, as would always happen with graduating seniors, you'd be interviewed by the big companies, such as IBM, Xerox, etc. So I went through a few of those, and I thought, 'This isn't what I want to do. I want to be in the record business.' I graduated in 1957, and started to look for a job in the record business. The first label I went to was Blue Note, and I just knocked on the door- I didn't even call them! I was very na've. All I remember was that Alfred Lion was there with a couple of people. He was very polite, and all he said, with his German accent, was 'Vee don't hire nobody- it's just Frank and me.' And that was that- I was out the door in five minutes! So for me to be running this label after all these years, it's thrilling. It was always my favorite label. You know, I would buy Blue Note recordings as a kid, without having to hear them first, because the quality was so consistently good.
AAJ: What was it about the quality of these recordings that led you and so many others to feel that they were the best?
BL: Well, this question has been discussed many times. For one thing, Lion always gave a full day of rehearsals, and he always had a concept in mind when he brought the musicians into the studio. They were never just 'blowing' sessions as some of the other labels had done. They were all planned. And he always had the best players. And Blue Note was always the company that seemed to find the next new musical voice. For example, I never heard of saxophonist Tina Brooks, but I bought the record and I said, my God, this guy is sort of like Mobley, but he's different! He's great! Lion would always come up with that sort of talent. So, the catalogue stands very much on its own. Of course, Prestige did some great records too, by the way. But during the forties and fifties, when I started buying my first LP's- one of the earliest I bought was the 10 inch LP of Bud Powell. Then I bought Herbie Nichols. I had to live with it for a month before I understood anything he was doing. I was a kid, just getting into this music.